KETO INSTANTPOT CHILI CON CARNE

Oof course, this can be made on the stove top. But doing it a pressure cooker takes a lot less babysitting and produces a super flavorful chili con carne. Just keep in mind that the spice amounts are totally up to you, including adding some cayenne for more heat. Otherwise, it is a pretty tame chili. No beans, of course, for the Keto-friendly aspect. If you’re not worried about Keto…serve it over cooked red or pinto beans or white rice.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 pounds 1 lean ground beef
  • 2 thick slices of bacon, diced
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 1 cup diced yellow or white onions
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled, minced
  • 1 small can diced green chiles
  • 1 small jalapeno, halved, seeds and ribs removed
  • 1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 1/2 tbsp chile powder
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • Shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese for garnish
  • Sour cream for garnish
  • Sliced green onions for garnish

Directions:

  • Turn pressure cooker to Saute and add 1 tbsp canola oil. When the oil is hot crumble in the ground beef, diced bacon, onions, and garlic. Chop and stir to desired consistency. Add the remainder of the ingredients except for the garnishes. Bring to a simmer and stir to mix all ingredients completely. Turn off Saute. Turn on Pressure, seal the lid, and cook for 25 minutes letting the pressure release naturally. Open the lid and taste. Reason if necessary.
  • Serve in bowls and garnish with shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream, and sliced green onions.

Diner food: Chili and Beans for chili size

There are hundreds of chili and beans recipes. This is just my take on an iconic diner dish. I posted a video of making it on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/skip.hansen.31/

Ingredients:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 cup white onions, 1/4 inch dice

12 ounces 80/20 ground beef

2 1/2 tbsp chile powder (I used New Mexico chile powder)

2 tbsp ground cumin

1 tbsp granulated sugar

2 tbsp tomato paste

1 tbsp granulated garlic

1 tsp Kosher salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/4 tsp cayenne

1 1/2 cups beef stock

1 (15 oz.) can diced tomatoes

1 (15 oz.) can red kidney beans, rinsed

1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

Grated cheddar, diced onions, diced tomatoes for garnish

Directions:

Add olive oil to a soup pot and place over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 2 minutes. Add the ground beef, crumbled. While the onions and ground beef are cooking, add the chile powder, cumin, sugar, granulated garlic, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Stir until well combined and let cook until the beef is browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and stir to combined for 2 minutes. Add the stock, diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Bring to a simmer, turn heat to low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Add the drained beans and continue to simmer another 30 minutes. Remove the lid if you want a thicker chili.

Am I a Shutter Bug?

I like cameras.  Check that. I love cameras, always have since as far back as I can remember. So, over the years I have acquired then de-acquired many different ones. Allow me to explain that. It’s all part of my life as a functional sufferer of SAS (Short Attention Span). Well, I don’t exactly “suffer” from this common malady, more like Loretta does. My SAS behavior had been very evident in my love of all things photographic.

Yes, I own quite a few cameras.  From DSLR’s, to Point & Shoots, to digital video cameras, and a lot of vintage film cameras (that last category is somewhat redundant, no?) Anyway, I have a small collection of “keepers”. I say keepers because of our agreed upon camera-buying protocol. You see, I promised Loretta a few years ago that I would (attempt to) abide by the “One-Out, One-In” rule.  In other words, I would have to sell a camera in order to buy another one. This friendly, somewhat loose-knit arrangement has worked fairly well with the more expensive equipment, no so much with the lessor costing items. This statement rings true here, “My biggest fear is that my wife will find out what I really paid for some of these cameras!” (for some dudes, insert in place of the word “cameras”: guns, auto stuff, coins, Betty Page photos, etc). Loretta being such a wonderful spouse, she pretty much gives me free hand to manage this area of the household without much kibitzing…and I appreciate this to no end.

I have never considered myself a great photographer.  Perhaps a seasoned enthusiast would be more accurate…I have my moments! I did have a good run at doing it “professionally” a few years.  Doing weddings and portraits provided some income for a period of time. But, my SAS in addition to my absolute and total aversion to the wedding photography process nixed that. Hmmm, I seem to have become a tad bit nauseous just thinking of my wedding photography days…’nuff said for now except two words: Bridezillas and their evil wedding minions, Mothers-in-Lawzillas. Phew! I move on for now.

I won’t display photos of my camera collection here and now. For one thing, I’m not home…we’re on a short RV trip. But I will show you one of my latest acquisitions. Before I do, here’s the juice on cameras in general. An expensive camera does not a good photographer make. That being said, here is one of the best Point-and-Shoots I have ever had (and I’ve had quite a few). The Hasselblad Stellar (Limited).

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Having recently worked for a few years in the camera department of a large retailer, I got to vicariously “own” most every little camera that came down the pike during that time, i.e., I played with them all in my “down time”. Mind you, this retailer did not carry higher end items, but enough to get an idea of what was out there camera-wise. From $69 point-and-shoots to near $500 low end DSLR’s, I fondled them all. Sony, Nikon, Canon, Samsung, and even Kodak…there were many…most of which of dubious build and image quality. However, I always found the little Sony’s that came along standing alone in image quality…8 out of a possible 10. The ergonomics on Sonys, not so much…perhaps a 5 out of 10…they’re just a bit more difficult to master than say the Canons or Nikon.  That being said, I opt for image quality. Hence…my purchase of the Hasselblad Stellar because, my young padewans, this camera is actually a Sony RX100 re-badged with the Big “H”.  Yes, I own a Hasselblad digital camera, albeit not the $20,000+ model but a $999 one. It’s one exquisite-photo-taking little camera! So now I own a Hasselblad AND a Sony digital camera in the same package. So be it.  It takes great quality images, is not difficult to master with minimal effort, is a great street photo camera (very unobtrusive), and is somewhat of a collector camera being a Limited Edition Hasselblad…(comes in a nifty, black piano laqurered box with nice Hasselblad embroidered wrist and shoulder straps, etc).FullSizeRender 2

Now, unless you are a camera nut like me, I wouldn’t recommend shelling out that much scratch for a camera like this. The Sony version runs about $500 now. A newer version of the Sony (RX100 III) about $800. As I’ve said before, a more expensive camera will not make you a better photographer. When I was hawking cameras retail, I can’t remember the amount of people who wanted to “upgrade” from their point-and-shoots to a DSLR in order to take “better” photos. Almost always, it didn’t happen. “Skip, how come my photos from my new Nikon D600 aren’t as good as my little, old, beat up Sony pocket camera?”  I would bite my lip and NOT say, “Because you stink! You’re a lousy photographer!” I would however say to them before and after their purchase of a $550 Nikon, “Put this thing on full Auto or P, let the camera do all the hard work, and have fun with it. If you start messing around with all the manual options…well, caveat emptor I guess”.

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Here are my two best tips for novice shutter bugs.  Set the Mode dial to “P”.  This is a full auto mode but allows a few manual tweakings, most importantly turning on the “Fill Flash”. The on-board flash works well for filling in shadows when there appears to be plenty of light or when there is a lot of back light. Play around with it.  It’s one of my favorite tips. I personally put all my cameras on the “A” or “Av” setting (aperture priority) because I like to manage my lens opening (the camera will manage the shutter speed on this setting).  Why do I do this? Because of the bokeh factor, i.e., out of focus backgrounds. I will do an entire blog on these simple tips in the near future.

One last thought on my new Sony RX100…er, Hasselblad Stellar. I hesitated buying it for one reason: my iPhone 6+ takes kick-ass photos with optical image stabilization. A few of the downsides of cell phone photography, at least for me, are the ergonomics (it’s smooth surface is just awkward to take photos, it tends to squirt out of my hands…so far, I’ve managed to catch it before hitting the pavement), slow focus, limited options, and it’s a fixed lens. On the other hand an issue for me with the Hasselblad: it’s tiny and a little inconvenient for my large hands. I’ll suffer. I’m getting used to it.  Besides, Loretta has teeny tiny hands and she uses it on trips when I put it in those little hands. She’s a good sport as always.

My final thoughts. Unless you have unlimited spendable hobby income or are an experienced novice or both, don’t spend a lot of money on ANY camera.  How much? Less than $200 for a pocket digital. Don’t mess with a DSLR unless you can afford the other lenses which can cost way more than the camera body. Cheap DSLR lenses, generally speaking, are made of plastic (break easily), and don’t usually produce the sharpest images.

Two final tidbits of photographic wisdom. Learn how to frame and take a lot of pictures…after the cost of the camera, the photos are free!

When women were women, men were men, and a double hamburger meant Bob’s Big Boy

Bob’s Big Boy

I have no idea why that title makes sense, but it does. A brief nostalgic waxing from an old, L.A.-raised boomer…me.

This is not about women or men and how their images, roles, or clothing compared to the good old days.  Nor about the accepted androgyny of today.  Hell, no – it’s about a hamburger – a Bob’s Big Boy hamburger!

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I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention a staple found at Bob’s Big Boy not on the menu: the car hops.

At our BBB in Canoga Park in the 60’s, the car lot was behind the restaurant, covered like a car port, and sporting menu  stands just outside each car’s window…kind of like Sonic today.  But instead of an intercom to place your orders, there was a plethora of what seemed like cloned car hops cavorting too and fro on rollers skates!  Yes, roller skates – and carrying full trays of food to boot! They would take your order in person, then deliver it to your car window with the precarious skills of a juggler…hanging the tray on (usually) the driver’s side window. That was a regular dinner scenario with the Hansen Family.  Of course, you could go inside if you wanted, but we really enjoyed the in-car dining.  Besides, no dress up required.  Thus, the popularity of the “drive-in”.

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Back to the Big Boy Hamburger. This particular incarnation of a self-proclaimed American icon began modestly in the late 30’s and flourished through the 70’s. Bob’s Big Boy…the old, time-honored version of how we oldsters remember BBB.

Sure, all things change with time, especially prices. The Big Boy Hamburger –  two patties of freshly ground beef on a sesame seed toasted 3-piece bun, with shredded lettuce, American cheese, and topped with a special relish-like dressing, set you back 45 cents in the 60’s! If you splurged (like most of us did) you got the Bob’s Big Boy Combination Plate that included the double burger, french fries, and hearts of lettuce salad with either BBB’s 1000 Island or Blue Cheese dressing…75 cents.  Of course, if you wanted a beverage you had to cough up another 15 cents. Check out some of the other menu items and prices that included a modest breakfast menu as well…milk shakes for 30 cents, hot fudge sundaes for 35 cents, pies, sandwiches, and several other standard diner items.  A true diner menu, from which Bob’s Big Boy was born.

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A  quick thanks to one of my high school “buddies” (Canoga Park High Class of ’67) Bari Bentley, she posted this BBB diner photo recently and it jogged my memory as one of the places from my childhood that still provides fond memories.

We all had our favorite “hang out” places – this was one of ours.  Ours meaning we, us, classmates from CPHS.

The oldest, original design Bob’s Big Boy is in Burbank, at the east end of the my beloved, iconic San Fernando Valley –  I grew up in the west end, Canoga Park.

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Today, one might say, “It’s just an old hamburger joint”.  But to us…it was THE hamburger joint.

Beef Stew

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I made my beef stew recipe the other day for the first time since last winter.  It was a rainy Sunday and Loretta just piped up in the middle of playing one her computer games and said, “Make beef stew!”  So, I made beef stew. My recipe is kind of a hybrid beef stew/bourguignon (red wine, more onions, garlic). This version serves about 4 people or, like us, 2 people and welcome leftovers the next day. Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients

1 pound well-marbled chuck trimmed of fat and cut into 1 inch cubes

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, I always use canola

Kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper

2 medium garlic gloves, minced

2 cups yellow onion, 1 inch chop

2 tablespoons bourbon or sherry

1/2 cup red wine, I used Merlot

2 medium carrots, 1/4 inch slice

3 cups beef stock

1 cup diced tomatoes

2 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon ground coriander, fresh ground if possible

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 pound cremini or white mushrooms, cut into 1 inch pieces if necessary

2 medium russet potatoes, peeled, cut into1 inch cubes

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, 3 tablespoons flour for roux

Fresh parsley for garnish

Directions

Heat oil in a large pot.  Salt and pepper meat, brown in oil thoroughly on all sides.  Add onions and cook for about 5 minutes stirring occasionally, season with salt and pepper.  Add garlic and cook for another minute or so (don’t let the garlic burn). Add bourbon to deglaze pan. Add stock, tomatoes, thyme sprigs, and coriander. Cover partially and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until beef is tender.

Saute mushrooms in butter until slightly browned. Add mushrooms and potatoes to stew, partially cover and cook another 45 minutes.

Make a roux with the flour and butter.  Bring stew to boil and add roux, stirring until thickened. Lower heat and cook further until it reaches your desire of thickness.  Adjust seasoning. Serve in large bowls and garnish with chopped fresh parsley.

The amounts of meat, vegetables, and liquid is entirely up to you.  I prefer more liquid than some recipes. You can substitute turnips for the potatoes.  Serve over large egg noodles if desired. We always have garlic bread with it, and, of course, a glass of red wine.

I always suggest using fresh ground pepper, kosher salt, and fresh herbs – just saying’! Please, never use bouillon cubes.  Use those boxes of stock not broth.  Or, I prefer the Knorr stock in those little plastic containers.  This way, you can make it as concentrated as you wish.

RV’ing, but thinking about food…

We’re on an RV jaunt to Moss Landing (just south of Santa Cruz) for 3 days, then on to Pescadero (just south of Half Moon Bay).  It’s been a great time to reflect on proposed cooking adventures.  So, here is something I conjured up (prose, not food) about food while enjoying the solitude of our home on wheels.

Cooking Light…or something like it.

As a long time self-professed foodie, self-taught chef (arguably), and all around chow hound, I must admit something I never thought I would hear myself saying: I’m going to concentrate my culinary efforts toward Cooking Light! OMG! I can’t believe I’ve said it.

Here’s a little back story to this most revealing admission.

I love to cook. I love to eat. I love to try new recipes. I love to collect recipes. For years I have been an advocate of very un-dietetic fine dining foods. Say the words Fettuccine Alfredo to me and I get all excited will have the heavy cream and butter reducing in a sauce pan within 5 minutes! Suggest a Number 1 at In N Out…I’m gone. Three-cheese bacon Mac ’n Cheese…show me to the Velveeta. Fried chicken…well, you get the picture. So my rationalization has always been this: I chose to NOT cut the flavorful fat and opt for smaller portions. Sounds simple right? And, it has worked for me (portion cutting) for a long time. However, as unfortunate as it sounds, reducing portions doesn’t seem to be the road I can, nor should, be on now. It just does not work any longer as part of my weight-maintaining, healthy diet life. I must ratchet my efforts up a notch or two.

I used to scoff at check stand magazines like Cooking Light. Sure, the recipe photos looked tempting, but the final product(s) were less than desirable. Bland, unsavory, boring, and so on. I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get a handle on this, until recently.

Recently, I have found a source for so-called lighter cooking of common comfort style foods, recipes that don’t compromise on flavor…my flavor preferences. I’m not going to reveal this source right now, but, it’s just another online food magazine that has caught my eye.

There are still some food concessions I refuse to make, one of which is using ground turkey instead of ground beef (sorry daughter, Jen). I will use ground chicken (more flavorful) in some recipes, but not to replace quality, lean ground beef. I will never (again) use No Fat anything. Talk about zero flavor! No fat cheese tastes like eating a candle (not something I’ve ever done, but just imagine that). No fat mayo is bizarre and unpalatable, same with no fat sour cream and cream cheese.

So with this being known, how do we reduce the fat and calories without compromising taste in our meals? Simple. You use low-fat common sense, cut some of the carbs, and add vegetables. I know what you’re saying, “Of course, dumb ass, no shit!” But come on, it’s the KISS method of eating right…keep it simple stupid.

Do we have to severely limit our intake of fatty snacks (God bless Lays and Doritos)? Do we have to cut back on Buffalo Wings with blue cheese dressing? How about foie gras or duck fat (not my cup of tea, but just saying)? So, yeah, short of total elimination of certain items, some wholesale portion cutting can’t be avoided.

I’m a couple months shy of 65 years of age. Tried and true methods of weight loss that worked 30 years ago ain’t gonna fly at this age. Example…I did Weight Watchers in my late 30’s (back when WW food wasn’t nearly as palatable as today). In two months, I lost 38 pounds. I went from 225 (my weight now) to 187 in 60 days. And, I did not exercise one iota. Plus, I cheated! I drank a couple of glasses of wine every night and ate popcorn ‘till it was coming out of my ears. Go figure (?) No. A change in metabolism. Let’s face it, most of us realized we can’t do the same things at 65 as we did at 35 including eat whatever and whenever we want. Not too long ago we used to entertain quite a bit, i.e., dinner parties…late dinner parties with lots or appetizers, adult beverages, and desserts. We just don’t do that any longer for a variety of reasons. Heck, I can’t remember the last time I had a meal after 7 pm. It was common to serve dinner at 8 or 9 at our parties. One of my best friends was a French chef named Jean Marie. We would have dinner at his house and not sit down to eat until 10 pm! On a side note, we smoked cigarettes while we ate (very European).

Back to my geriatric self. I am surrendering to the reality of my culinary, age-related frailty. I simply can’t eat as much as I used to. I remember my father once told me in the late 60’s (he was 50, I was 19), “You know son, I can’t do justice to a Sunday buffet any more. I just can’t eat that much food”. He was referring to the cost versus his appetite. At that time, a buffet at a restaurant was about $15.00 in 1969 dollars, probably $30 or so today. Being the pragmatic (and cheap) guy he was, he couldn’t eat $15.00 worth of buffet food. It kind of made sense to me at the time, perfect sense today.

Some of these new recipes I am planning on trying will show up here from time to time. They are all things I love to eat, certainly NOT twigs, sticks, and bean sprouts. These have about 2/3 of the calories and 1/2 the fat of the more traditional versions. And, like I said, I will share them with you here after trying them myself…photos and nutrition data. One of the first recipes is for Loaded Potato Bacon Cheese Soup. Really!

The biggest challenge?  Doing these adjustments on our RV trips which, by the way, will occupy about half of our time.

Brining, Braising, BBQ’ing, Berkshire

I’m headed to Seattle for Thanksgiving having made my Virgin America (I love this airline!) reservation a number of weeks ago.  I leave from San Francisco on the Tuesday before and return the Saturday after, hopefully avoiding the major holiday travel crunch (I’m knocking on wood right now).  Of course, traveling to Seattle is for the sole purpose of seeing one of my kids, my son-in-law, and two grandkids.  Check that, maybe not “sole purpose” considering I love Seattle and seeing it again is like visiting an old friend I haven’t seen for a while.  Love the scenery, love the vibe, and love food.  Speaking of the latter, my Seattle visits also include home-cooked gastronomical forays.  Yeah, Roth, Jen, and me get to cook stuff…together!

I recently took delivery of a quantity of Berkshire pork belly.  It pretty much can’t be found anywhere around this culinary wasteland called Modesto, so I find deals on line. It’s shipped frozen via FedEx from the Midwest.  I promised my son-in-law, Roth (an excellent cook) that I would either bring some pork belly with me (not sure if that would be an issue with the TSA) or ship it to him before hand. Still pondering that deal.  At any rate, it would behoove me to get his portion to Seattle soon to allow some brining time (a week or so) if that is what he chooses.  If bacon is the intended final product, then curing will need to be done…a little longer process.

With all fairness, by request, here is quick explanation of a couple of terms.  Brining: very similar to marinating but using a mostly salt solution in water, from an hour to a few days.  Braising: long, slow cooking in some sort of liquid.  Curing: used for centuries for food preservation, today typically a long, dry process to infused flavor into meat, i.e., smoking pork belly for bacon.

The other term in the title of this post, Berkshire, refers to a breed of hog prized for flavor and tenderness. Evidently, similar to the quandary of identifying so-called Prime beef, the term Berkshire is often tossed about without checking the hog’s pedigree.

Considering my time in Seattle will include Thanksgiving, the food focus will be on turkey, not pork belly.  What Jen and Roth are planning remains to be scene.  He has been known to undertake the daunting task of turducken.  For me, I would be very satisfied with roast turkey, mash potatoes, gravy, and dressing.

Many years ago, I strayed a little from the usual thanksgiving fair.  My mother suggested, “Why don’t you just do the traditional thanksgiving food?”  My sarcastic response, “Well, how about we cook a wild goose, invite over some native Americans, and dress up like pilgrims?”  That statement was met with some sort of “talk to the hand” action from Mom.

 

 

 

Retirement: not the end of the road, just a turn in it.

Yeah, so I’m now retired. By definition, retired means having left one’s job and ceased to work.  That pretty much sums it up generally speaking.  Personally, even though I won’t turn 65 until January, I chose to cease working a couple of years ago, mainly for health reasons. But I also like to reference an old saying, apropos of my extended stint in restaurant management and the customer service sector: stick a fork in me…I’m done! So much for a cursory explanation for my bailout from the work force, this blog post is more about what I plan to do now rather than blather and dis about my disdain for certain career choices…saved for another posting.

I would like to say that I have all the time in the world to do whatever I please, but that’s not really the case.  Without dwelling too much on my health, let me say this…my time here is somewhat limited and so are my physical capabilities.  I realize all of our time is limited, mine is a bit more defined. With this being known, I do indeed have definite plans.

Initially anticipating my new-found liberation brought with it a few lofty and ambitious travel ideas, some of which have since fallen by the wayside when I came to my senses, i.e., a cold slap in the face by reality.  For instance, I’ve possessed a strong desire to visit the Orient again.  Having spent some time in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam many years ago, I thought it would be an interesting travel destination now that I have the time and wherewithal to do it. Enter my depleted physical state and a foray to so-called Third World locales may not be the most judicious of decisions. Reasons to rethink this include the specter of spending long hours crammed in an airplane, hot, humid weather, my inability to walk long distances especially uphill, being away from my primary health care facilities, and spending time in the proximity of large quantities of huge disgusting insects and poisonous reptiles. Did I ever mention I have extreme insect fear?  Check that…extreme insect disgust. You see, visiting the parts of the orient that I would like to see include seeing the less-traveled places, and that means jungles and remote forests. Not gonna happen me thinks. So, where AM I bound for with all this time and opportunity? Why, the U.S., of course!  “SEE THE USA IN A CHEVROLET!” Well, not in a Chevrolet.  Read on and I will explain.

We have ventured into the World of American RV Travel. Not to be confused with camping, RV’ing is a whole other animal.  For Loretta and I, camping has never been a viable mode of recreation.  Honestly, our disdain for sleeping in a tent with the dirt and insects is only eclipsed by the amount of effort it takes to successfully accomplish a camping trip.  Yes, as kids we both fully embraced the joys of camping out in the wilderness, by a lake or river, fishing and playing amongst the wonders of nature. Our family did a lot of camping.  And the one aspect of it I never forgot was the fact that Mom and Dad did all the hard work:  the planning, the packing, the driving, the setting up, the cooking, the cleaning, and the pack out.  All we did soon after arriving at the camp site was hit the dirt running and playing and fishing and swimming. Sure, there is a certain amount of effort and energy required to get the motorhome ready, but it isn’t much compared to camping.  And, to say the least, accommodations when you arrive at your destination are much more comfortable than a tent.

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So, in what direction are we setting our compass? To paraphrase a quote from Napoleon Dynamite, “Wherever I feel like I wanna go, gosh!”

Without spewing the entire list of our intended RV destinations, just let me say this…we are literally 2 hours away from Yosemite, 3 hours from Lake Tahoe, and 3 hours from seaside destinations like Big Sur, Jenner Beach, and Monterey. And these are just the short trips for 3 or 4 days at a time.  I’m trying to plan a few long jaunts to, say, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, British Columbia, even Florida.

Unfortunately, as I write this, our motel-on-wheels is in the shop, has been for nye onto 3 weeks. We are being held hostage by the dealer and associated repair shop to complete our sales contract, i.e., fix the problems. This annoying delay in our travel plans isn’t costing anything other than frustration…so we wait.  But that’s O.K. Loretta and I our both antsy to get going somewhere.  She has expressed this angst to me many times of late, “I can’t wait to get it back so I can put our things in it and go somewhere!”  Yes, she is the self-appointed packer and loader.  I am the planner, driver, and cook.  Notice I didn’t say chief cook and bottle washer as Loretta insists on doing the latter…I don’t argue with that.

So, we will still plan another cruise sometime soon (we cruised to Alaska in July), but our main vacation mode will be the RV.

I only wish the same retirement future for anyone in our age group.  At this age, we (you) deserve it…whatever mode you choose.

Tally Ho!

P.S. I promise to post pictures and stories of our travels here.

To cruise or not

Loretta and I finally went on a cruise. After years of contemplating this and after much hesitation from me we did it. An 11-day Alaskan cruise on Princess this past July.

We sailed from San Francisco on the beautiful, huge Star Princess. As with most ships this size, it is basically a floating resort…several pools, lots of hot tubs, many restaurants and cocktail lounges, shops, shows, and so on.

We chose a balcony stateroom which, in my opinion, is the only way to go. Much of our sightseeing was done from the comfort of our own private patio. And although we did go on a few shore excursions, our favorite times were spent on the ship.

Briefly, our itinerary was as follows: San Francisco to Ketchikan, Ketchikan to Tracy Arm fjord, Tracy Arm to Juneau, Juneau to Icy Straight Point, Icy Straight Point to Victoria, Victoria to San Francisco. There were several days at sea in both direction and an entire day cruise the Tracy Arm fjord. The weather was incredible the whole trip, especially when we were in port. Out on the bounding main, it did get a bit rough at times, however, for the most part, it was a smooth sailing.

Underway, and getting ready to go under the GGB.
Underway, and getting ready to go under the GGB.

Sailing party on deck.
Sailing party on deck.

The adult pool.  It was much to cool and windy at sea to strip down for a swim here.
The adult pool. It was much too cool and windy at sea to strip down for a swim here.

Our ship while on a tour of Ketchikan.
Our ship while on a tour of Ketchikan.

Heading for Tracy Arm fjord.
Heading for Tracy Arm fjord.

Since this was our first cruise, I have no way to compare cruise lines or other ships. Let me say this, I would highly recommend The Star Princess. It was very comfortable. Our stateroom, though small, was very cozy. You have the same steward the whole time. He was very accommodating, courteous, and efficient. Room service was lightning fast.

The Tracy Arm fjord.  Sawyer glacier in the background.
The Tracy Arm fjord. Sawyer glacier in the background.

Sawyer glacier.
Sawyer glacier.

Our captain sailed this huge ship all the way up the fjord.  Then, "spun" it around to steam back out.  Incredible.
Our captain sailed this huge ship all the way up the fjord. Then, “spun” it around to steam back out. Incredible.

Icy Point Straight.
Icy Point Straight.

Loretta at the Mendenhall glacier outside Juneau.
Loretta at the Mendenhall glacier outside Juneau.

Overlooking Juneau.
Overlooking Juneau.

Overall, the food was not bad. We mostly ate in one of two buffet rooms, but we also tried each of the restaurants including the two fine dining restaurants (requiring a cover charge). Food is always available and is part of the faire. Alcohol and soft drinks are extra as well as couple of special seafood buffets that were offered. Wait and service staff were abundant and very friendly and helpful.

Humpback whales...and more whales near Ice Straight Point.
Humpback whales…and more whales near Ice Straight Point.

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Spectacular scenes like these were common.
Spectacular scenes like these were common.

Regarding things to do, there were many things scheduled each day…too many to go into here. A 2-page brochure was delivered to our room nightly outlining the next days activities including the shows. We attended several stage show productions as well as a couple of comedian shows. They were all very entertaining.

One of the buffet areas.
One of the buffet areas.

The indoor pool.
The indoor pool.

The "Piazza".
The “Piazza”.

Another view of the Piazza.
Another view of the Piazza.

Harbor, Victoria, B.C.
Harbor, Victoria, B.C.

The B.C.parliament building, downtown Victoria.
The B.C.parliament building, downtown Victoria.

The Star Princess docked at Victoria.
The Star Princess docked at Victoria.

There were really no negatives or big surprises to mention, except, perhaps, when we received our final bill! The cruise was paid in advance, but all on ship spending is added to an account attached to your credit card. No cash is ever exchanged on the ship. Every other expense such as alcohol, soft drinks, shopping purchases, casino gambling, and shore excursions are charged to your room account. So, they make it quite easy to over indulge and over spend. So be it.

Getting on and off the ship before, during, and after is very organized and efficient. Of course, there are times when it gets crowded disembarking or coming back…we managed to avoid most by going early and coming back early. FYI – getting on a off the ship involves TSA-type screening, though it goes a lot fast than at the airport.

The "crowd" trying to get back on the ship after a half day in Victoria.  We came back early.  Timing is everything.
The “crowd” trying to get back on the ship after a half day in Victoria. We came back early. Timing is everything.

5 am, last day.  Sailing into S.F. Bay
5 am, last day. Sailing into S.F. Bay

Under the G.G. Bridge.
Under the G.G. Bridge.

Almost home.
Almost home.

Getting ready to parallel park a 900 foot cruise ship...no tugs!
Getting ready to parallel park a 900 foot cruise ship…no tugs!

We did book a future (undetermined) cruise with Princess while onboard as the deposit is greatly reduced and fully refundable for 2 years. We plan to go somewhere in January but haven’t quite decided where. We had thought about the 10 day Mexican Riviera thing, but have kind of decided against it. Perhaps the Caribbean.  Needless to say, it is difficult to decide which photos to post, especially when I took over 1500 of them. Check out more Alaska cruise photos HERE.

Simple pleasures.  Cruising is a great way to go.
Simple pleasures. Cruising is a great way to go.

Of course we are going again, maybe even Alaska again as there are many other ports to visit. The scenery is breathtaking to say the least!

Photography 101 – Choosing the right camera and getting better photos.

Two of the most often asked questions I get working in the camera department of a large retailer are: What camera should I buy?  And, What’s the best camera you have (while pointing toward the 36 different models on display).  That second question I will answer first by saying, “That $649 Nikon DSLR is the best camera we have?”  This response will be followed by, “Wow, I don’t want to spend that much!”  At this point I launch into a brief Q&A…ask yourself these questions before asking that silly question:

1.  What am I going to use it for?  Kid photos, pet photos, family photos, travel photos, starting a photo business, etc.

2.  What camera (if any) do I have now and, what do I like or don’t like about it?

3.  What’s my budget?

For the novice photobug, here is a general place to start and what I usually tell well-intentioned camera buyers.

I tell them, “I can take clear, sharp, lovely photos with that $69 camera right there”…with this caveat.  Your options with a cheap, plastic, digital camera are slim compared to a $649 DSLR when it comes to features, ie, bell and whistles.  However, do you need those bells and whistles you get with a DSLR.  I should say at this point that DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex.  Quite simply, the digital version of 35mm film cameras, which, by the way, you can now purchase (top of the line) older 35’s for less than the cost of a cheap DVD player.  More on this option later, back to digital.

So, what’s the difference between that $69 dollar point-and-shoot and THAT $199 point-and-shoot?  Typically, the cheaper camera is made entirely of plastic including the lens.  The more you pay the sturdier the camera and it probably has a glass lens.  Durability is one of the benefits of spending a bit more.

I won’t get too technical and get into megapixels right now except for this.  You’d be hard pressed to find a new digital camera these days that isn’t at least 16 megapixels…cheap or expensive.  Keep this in mind…more megapixels will NOT make you a better photographer.  In other words, a high-resolution, improperly framed and over or under exposed photo image is still a lousy photo, right?

My advice if you are just starting out, or want to replace an inexpensive digital camera, or your camera broke…etc, DON’T SPEND A LOT OF MONEY YET!  So what should you buy?  Look to a sub-$200 Nikon or Canon point-and-shoot for the best builds and reliability for now.  I would also say Sony except for the fact that they tend to have a higher learning curve at times.

If you’ve already purchased something similar to the above.  Here are the most basic tips for getting decent, if not fantastic photos.

1.  Hold the camera still when pressing the shutter.  Less expensive cameras are notorious for having a relatively slow shudder, ie, the lag time between pressing the shutter button and when the camera actually exposes the images.  This is probably the biggest issue when folks show me their somewhat blurry prints, especially in low light situations.

2.  Expsoure…eegads…that sounds too technical!  Put your camera in the most Automatic mode available, usually the little green camera icon, either on a dial at the top or in a menu…and leave it there for now.  The camera will take care of everything else…exposure, shutter speed, and focus.  It will even adjust the ISO setting (film speed in the old days) for lower light photos…and, it will fire the flash if necessary.  Done deal.  However, please always refer back to #1 above no matter what the situation or camera setting.

3.  Framing.  This is where practice comes in.  One of the biggest mistakes I see when printing amateur photos is improper framing, specifically not being aware of where the subject is in the viewfinder.  For example, when taking a portrait shot, don’t place the subject’s face in the middle of the viewfinder, leaving the top half of the image with nothing but sky or trees.  Get closer, the next biggest issue.  Those little digital cameras have a great wide angle to them.  That works fine with landscapes or scenic shots.  Either get in closer to your subject or use the zoom to frame them so you can at least recognize who it is!

4.  And finally:  Practice, Practice, Practice…shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.  It’s digital for gosh sakes, you aren’t paying for film development.  After you shoot, check out the images….then delete, delete, and delete some more before taking the memory card to your friendly neighborhood photo kiosk for prints.

A few other valuable tips include:  Keep your camera clean, especially the lens.  Protect your camera by carrying it in a small, padded case.  Charge the battery often or keep fresh batteries handy.  Check the settings before embarking on a photo shoot opportunity.  Keep an extra memory card handy.  For the casual amateur, if you faithfully delete the bad shots on a regular basis, you shouldn’t need another card unless you are going on vacation or an extended trip.  Do not…I repeat…do not lend your camera to a friend under any circumstances.  If it doesn’t come back trashed (or they lose it altogether) it will come back with the settings all screwed up.  Don’t lose your battery charger or charging cord!  They are not expensive to replace as long as you buy them on eBay, but finding one in a retail store?  Forget it.  And, the universal ones cost $30 or more.  Along the same lines, buy an extra rechargeable battery, again on eBay (maybe $5-$10 with a charger) as electronics stores charge an arm and a leg, and, they don’t come charged.  Keep your digital images organized on your computer.  In other words, download the good ones to a file and label it.  Then delete the ones you don’t want.

Please know this.  I am not a photo wizard or photo guru.  I just love to take pictures and have been doing it a long while, for myself and, for a time, professionally (weddings, events, portraits).  My main focus now is landscapes and still lifes. I do an occasional portrait.  But I love still lifes and landscapes for the simple reason(s) that my subjects always show up and I can take my time!  Right now, I am a Nikon advocate.  I’ve owned and used Canon, Pentax, Sony, and Minolta equipment among many others…both film and digital.  No “one” camera is the best.  It’s whatever is best for you.  Again, I just get asked these questions on a daily basis.

Another quick suggestion or two:  Invest in a digital photo program for “processing”, cropping, and tweaking your photos.  If you own a Mac like I do, the latest iPhoto has most everything an amateur photographer could ever want.  I also use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  Lightroom retails for about $149 although I think it’s available to download from the Adobe site for less than $100.  Photoshop?  About $600.  With Photoshop keep in mind that you will only use about 5% of what PS is capable of doing.  It’s not a necessary program unless you really want to get into design and special effects.  Open a flickr account (it’s free for the basic one).  Not only can you see other folk’s photos you can post your own and share.

If you have any questions, please drop me an email through this post.  I will try to answer it the best I can.  If you ask me about a specific camera, I will refer you to Google as you will find countless reviews on every camera there.

Coming soon: Watch for Photography 101:  Movin’ on up.  Buying a better camera.